Stereophile's Writers on an Audio Quest Page 6

Mitchell: But if it's getting consistently better than it was and getting good at lower price levels, then by definition we're making progress.

Holt: It's called advancing the state of the art.

Mitchell: And that happens only by establishing certain knowledge, not by just exchanging opinions. Especially when those opinions are contradictory. If Stereophile says a product is great and The Abso!ute Sound says that the same product is trash, or vice versa, then we've really not gotten anywhere at all. But if we can establish why products interact the way they do, then we can make some progress toward understanding what's going on.

Low: I don't think Richard said that the measurements were irrelevant. But you have to leave the door open. I'm very close with Richard Vandersteen: he measures intensely, but it is crucial to development of his product—and I think this would go for other good manufacturers—that the final say is the ear. He uses every possible measurement that he can get his hands on. He pursues that as rigorously as he can but never to override what the ear says. We're never going to be able to say that measuring is the whole story.

Atkinson: But Bill, take 20 cable manufacturers, all of whom apply that philosophy. They each measure what they can, they each listen and let their ears be the arbiters. Each comes up with a cable involving a design philosophy which they know is best because it sounds best to them. Yet it's totally contradicted by someone else's design philosophy. Some have low inductance, some are high inductance, some have silk insulators, some have Teflon insulators, some have six-nines copper, some have magnetic conductors which other manufacturers say you cannot have, it's the worst possible thing. Every one of them is right to themselves, and yet to people out there in audiophile land and to reviewers it's like, how many contradictory things can you agree with every morning?

Low: What you've just cited is that you've been reading these people's advertising, not that you've actually got a full understanding of how they've designed their products. What they're focusing on in their propagandizing are the things they think distinguish them from each other. Now I have no opinion on magnetic conductors—I've never used them. And I doubt that actually many of the other manufacturers do, although Dick is reviewing a cable that does take that approach. (I'm intrigued.) You mentioned one company features a dielectric, one company talks about materials, and another company doesn't. It doesn't mean that underneath they don't have a lot more agreement, but what they're putting out to distinguish themselves in the market are their differences and not their similarities. There's not as much difference, I think, as what your series of statements implied.

There are a couple of gross schools. There are those who believe you've got little strands and big strands, and there are those that don't believe that. And there are those who think that strand interaction is a less significant problem. (Which doesn't mean that those other things are not a problem at all.)

Atkinson: I think the emphasis on these differences is detrimental to the high-end industry because a lot of people faced with all of them say, "Well, a pox on all your houses, you're probably all wrong."

Low: It's only because there's this peculiar male ego problem of people—again, the store buyer, the consumer, and the reviewer—thinking they have to be able to design a product in order to be able to be intelligent consumers. There's no correlation between being a designer and being a consumer. There's no reason for a consumer to understand how a product is made...

Olsher: One of the basic assumptions of science is that you can design or optimize a product by rational means alone. That you can take a set of measurements that will predict the ultimate performance of the product.

Mitchell: Who claims that in the real world?

Olsher: The essence of science is to build on better theory, make better predictions, and agree more closely with experiment. What I'm saying is that we're talking about an art here as well as a science. If you design to a formula, you eventually get products to the point where they are darn close in terms of measurement. Let's talk about amplifiers. They will each have a few little glitches here and there. The question becomes: Which of those glitches is more objectionable? Which compromise is more tolerable? You ultimately have to sit down and listen. You cannot make a decision between product A or product B, between a Krell and a Levinson, on the basis of measurements alone.

Sommerwerck: So let's stop measuring, right? Let's not try to find any measurements. Is that the solution?

Olsher: So here comes the art. Making the compromises that affect the music the least.

Sommerwerck: Does that mean we should stop looking for new measurements?

Mitchell: Or stop trying to design products scientifically?

Olsher: The point is that you cannot reach a final optimum plateau with measurements alone. Measurements get you very close. But eventually you have to get a person into the design loop.

Atkinson: Measurements won't tell you what is better, they'll only tell you what hasn't been done badly.

Sommerwerck: That isn't the point that Peter and I are trying to make. The point is that science is a process of learning. It is not a set of fixed facts, which is what Richard was pointing out. You do not throw science out just because you don't understand anything. The whole point of science is trying to understand things by intuition, by repeated experiment, and by trying to organize your experience.

Olsher: By intuition?

Sommerwerck: Intuition has a place in science. A lot of scientists say that the theories of subatomic particles that are most aesthetically pleasing are the ones that happened to turn out to be right when they performed the experiments.

Atkinson: Not always. I always thought that Hoyle's idea of continuous creation in a static but dynamic universe was the most elegant piece of cosmology ever proposed. It turns out to be totally wrong. Elegance isn't of itself a necessity for truth.

Balgalvis: I think that, especially when Bill starts talking about pure science, we take ourselves too seriously. Because I think the whole business we're in is so goddamned crude. We're so far away from achieving any real semblance of reality when we play back our CDs or LPs or whatever. Maybe the differences that we perceive get lost so much in the muck that is there, so we get into all these elegant explanations of what we're all about. I'm amazed that we take ourselves that seriously.

Low: But it's not crude. A beautiful example: Video is taken very seriously. And people consider the differences in video to be objective. And yet who is going to be fooled by any size television screen and think it's real? Whereas in audio we actually come a lot closer to being able to fool somebody by the existence of a reproduced phenomenon. Yet we're considered "subjective" compared to another medium that's much more universally appreciated, that's considered "objective"...

Balgalvis: It could be that it's always repeatable because that screen is always there. I can go in there and he can go in there, and he can go in there, and always look at the same screen. But we've all had the experiences: Some nights, "Sonofabitch, that system really sounds great!" and everybody is happy, I'm happy. Then next evening people come over and are listening to it—"Shit, it isn't like last night!"

Low: The listener is an active part of the system—when I had a diesel car, during the day that damn thing roared and was obnoxious and I hated it, and in the evening it was this purr that just made the world feel good—and you're right. It cannot be subtracted and the professionalism that's required of reviewers is to acknowledge that, be aware of it, and not let it interfere with the job. That's as much as we can ask. As much as you can do.

Lipnick: I agree with Arnie. But this brings in something: we publish all this wonderful scientific stuff. But the bottom line is what do people who read the magazine look for? Yes, a lot of them say, "I want scientific measurements." But the fact is they want to know how this stuff sounds!

Low: ...The one thing I try to get across to the consumers that I talk to every day is that they should develop a healthy cynicism. That they should look at the motivations of the people who are giving them their advice, and examine how much responsibility those people have for their opinions. They should look at why a store buys the equipment that it buys. The majority of equipment is bought for stores by people who would never listen to it before buying it. Consumers should bother to stand back a second and look at the way a store does its business. Realize that this store didn't include any of their priorities in deciding whether or not to carry that equipment. If they just develop that basic bit of cynicism, they're 95% of the way there.

In the end, though, they do have to trust somebody's advice. And no single store is going to be carrying the system that they might have tried to put together by reading Stereophile. So they end up saying either, "I'll buy this amplifier from this dealer, this preamp from this dealer, and this speaker from this dealer, because they're all good components," or, "Do I work with somebody?" And that's touchy because there aren't many dealers that I'd say are worth working with, where I would send a friend and say, "Just go and do what that store tells you." That's very rare. It's almost nonexistent. But I certainly wouldn't tell anybody "Just read The Abso!ute Sound or Stereophile or Sounds Like..., then go and buy a system." In that sense they need the store more than they need the magazine. But the magazine can help give them a perspective greater than what a store can give them, and that's its role.

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